‘Kimmel’ exec plays with the big boys

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Corrections were made to this article on May 30, 2006.

There are worse friends to have in television than Regis Philbin.

The ubiquitous host was one of several TV personalities, including some latenight stalwarts, who made personal pitches for Jill Leiderman, who in April succeeded Duncan Gray as executive producer of “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

“I got a lot of calls from a lot of people who should not be helping out the competition,” Kimmel says.

Leiderman, a former VH1 development exec and longtime producer at the “Late Show With David Letterman,” takes the helm of “Kimmel” at a turning point for the show.

Short of NBC’s “Last Call with Carson Daly,” Kimmel has the smallest audience in latenight. But his audience is growing, and the show seems to have transcended some of the uncertainty that has followed it since former ABC Entertainment prexy Lloyd Braun first put it on the air after the Super Bowl in 2003.

Now it’s being supported by a stronger primetime lineup and a host of hit shows with stars who are increasingly willing to show up as guests. Also, Kimmel is looking to broaden his appeal beyond the fratty “Man Show” demo.

“Jimmy has established a strong base, but I want to expand it and open the aperture on the comedy even more,” Leiderman says.

Leiderman’s agenda for the show is to bring in more varied guests, developing branded comedy segments like “Unnecessary Censorship” and “Future Talent Showcase,” as well as regular personalities who become demi-celebrities who inhabit Kimmel’s world, like parking lot security guard Guillermo as well as Cousin Sal and Uncle Frank.

During the spring, ABC has instituted changes to the show that have made it more similar to, and in some ways differentiated from, its competition. Like all network latenight hosts, Kimmel now begins his show with a standup routine, rather than sitting behind the desk.

The show attempts to push the envelope with taped comedic bits, airing between four and five a night. That meant going dark on Thursdays in order to stockpile material.

But even if “Kimmel” finds its creative stride, will audiences ever find him?

It’s a question that has long followed the network, which, unlike NBC and CBS, has no strong latenight tradition.

Last fall ABC committed its near future to a post-Ted Koppel “Nightline,” which gives “Kimmel” a small, incompatible lead-in. That ABC has not yet placed “Primetime” on the fall schedule makes “Nightline” an even more important timeslot for the news division.

“Kimmel” starts nearly a half-hour earlier than the two other hosts with whom he’s most often compared — NBC’s Conan O’Brien and CBS’ Craig Ferguson — but those few viewers inclined to stick around after “Nightline” have to sit through an additional commercial pod, which pushes his start time to six minutes after midnight.

“It’s a stiff challenge that’s difficult to overcome, but in spite of it he’s managed to grow his ratings, and we hope that will continue,” says Andrea Wong, who oversees the time period for ABC.

Leiderman, 34, would appear to be uniquely qualified to help Kimmel give it a try.

At age 12 she hosted a show at WMAQ in Chicago, “Kidding Around” where she interviewed “The Blue Lagoon” heartthrob Christopher Atkins. During college at Northwestern U., she had internships at “Days of Our Lives” in Burbank and with Jeff Zucker at “The Today Show” in New York.

She got her start in comedy on “The Jon Stewart Show” in 1993. David Letterman happened to be a guest on the final show in 1995, and Leiderman was inspired to make “Late Show” producer Robert Morton a pitch.

After joining “Letterman,” she worked her way up from writer’s researcher to senior producer, where her job was to “take all the dreams the writers that Dave had and make them come to fruition.”

This meant, among other things, spending most of her Thanksgivings with Dave’s mom, squiring Biff Henderson through small-town America, bringing Tony Randall to the Super Bowl and coaching a group of accountants to deliver the top-10 list.

“She had a lot of experience editing bits and setting up live comedy,” Kimmel says. “If you can go on the road and make everything work, becoming an executive producer of a show is a bit of a vacation.”

Also at “Letterman,” she made her most important professional connection in Philbin, a frequent guest who noticed her ease with talent and her ability to coach a performance out of just about anyone.

So when Kimmel’s longtime producer Duncan Gray left the show in the spring, Leiderman let Philbin know she was interested in the job.

How much did Philbin’s advocacy affect Kimmel’s decision? “Quite a lot, actually,” he says. “You don’t get a call from Regis every day.”

When Leiderman got the job, Philbin was so excited he let the news slip on “Live With Regis & Kelly.”

Leiderman left latenight TV two years ago to take a job as a development exec at VH1. When she got the call from Kimmel, she packed a bag, flew to L.A. and has been working nonstop ever since.

She says her return to the frenetic pace of live TV “has the feeling of being in your professional sweet spot.”

Kimmel made light of his obsessive work habits in a recent bit with girlfriend Sarah Silverman. That tendency is at least one thing Kimmel, who spends his time away from the set scouring the Web for material, and Leiderman have in common.

“She works like a crazy person,” he says. “I send her an email at 2 a.m. saying you’re going to make me look lazy.”